Criticism and the Creative Process

I love the feeling of starting a new project. Possibilities are endless, you’re optimistic and ready for the inevitable mess; you can still joke about it and you’re getting an okay amount of sleep. As a producer, depending on the project and timeline, I visualize either an organized pantry shelf or a mountain of broken cars. These are kind of lame images, but that’s where my mind goes. Neither guarantees success, though I feel better armed for the proverbial battle when I’ve spent time with the assets and organized to my Type-A heart’s content. Either way, when you’re in edit and you’ve done the sometimes exhausting, sometimes exhilarating, most times thankless work of creating a piece that doesn’t suck, you’ve got only one thing in your future and that’s the approval process.

Whenever I hear the phrase “approval process” my interest is immediately piqued because there are so many fantastically horrible stories about fantastically horrible feedback and work gone wrong. You probably haven’t done much work in the industry if you don’t have a few of these stories. I’ve seen videos, parodies, presentations and articles and I’ve witnessed, first-hand, everything from the standard, everyday dismissive to the complete and utter collapse of a piece in the wake of a simple miscommunication. It happens to everyone.

Criticism is absolutely necessary. I don’t know of any first drafts that were ever the final piece. At least not any worth mentioning. A project in the hands of a good editor — whatever their title — is imperative not only to creating a great piece, but also to evolving as a better writer/producer/designer/everything else, so I’m not knocking it. I’m desperate for it. I just want what we all want … something I can work with. And so I don’t feel like this at the end of the day.

When giving feedback, here are a few things that might make for a more productive session:

1. Clarity. Ambiguity just isn’t helpful. A project without clear intentions is a mess all the way through. If parts of the project are blurry or temporary (and let’s be real, sometimes that’s just the way it is), it’s easier to muddle through when everyone gets the concept. Vague feedback like “I don’t like it” and even “This is amazing!” isn’t especially productive. Be specific, consistent and action-oriented about what’s good and what needs to go.

2. No Bullshit. Revisions and criticism are a part of the process, but you’ll get a more responsive, strategic thinker out of someone who feels like their work is valued, so dish out the negative with a dose of genuine praise. Genuine is definitely the key word because empty praise and/or stock phrases will have exactly the opposite effect. If your idea of feedback is a snarky email and a winking emoji, the likelihood of getting the best work out of that person is slim to none. Respect the time and effort.

3. Communication. This should really be engrained with clarity, but communication is truly it’s own beast because people find fascinating ways to screw this up. Getting halfway through a project without expressing certain mandatories isn’t going to work; not being honest about creative decisions isn’t going to work; not registering approval within  an anticipated timeframe isn’t going to work either. They’re not going to work because again, they play outside the lines in a way that isn’t helpful or constructive to the person or people actually doing the work; it has the effect of looking like game-play. It’s one thing to be vague at a preliminary stage as to not lock an artist in a box, and it’s one thing for deliverables to change throughout the process — those are not the droids you’re looking for. Be upfront and realistic about the project and timeline as it changes, not later.

These are just a few things that are at the top of my list after 10ish years of creative-type work at multiple places. Consider this Version 1 of this post and I’ll update and refine in the future as feedback and/or criticism likely mean different things to all of us. Negative criticism or feedback from a bad-feedback giver (to be polite) doesn’t doom a project, but again, it just isn’t helpful or productive and may ultimately lead to more time  and confusion in edit when it shouldn’t.

Let me know your great feedback advice – or if you’ve got one of those fantastically horrible stories (or even a good one!)!


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